PERSPECTIVE: Thinking of Violence in Market Terms Is One Way to Solve It

While we’ve all been focused on COVID-19, violence around the world continues. January through April 2020 saw intensified ISIS activity, and in June, The New York Times reported that “strikes by the Islamic State are on the rise.” Now, an Islamist terror group with ties to ISIS is growing increasingly active in Mozambique. While we address COVID-19 challenges, we must simultaneously address the active and brewing violence around the world and how these threats may head toward U.S. borders.

In order to defeat this kind of violence, we have to change the way we look at counter-terrorism (CT) and counterinsurgency (COIN). For one, there is no such thing as a permanently secure area. Counterinsurgency strategies have focused on a “clear, hold, and build” approach that emphasizes eliminating insurgent influence from an area (clear), before restoring governance (hold), and supporting the strengthening of local people (build). Counter-terrorism strategies have focused on targeting terrorists and their facilitators.

Today, leaders widely acknowledge that simply clearing an area of opposing forces will likely not keep the enemy away. For example, the surge in Iraq “cleared” substantial parts of Iraq, but the network of insurgent entrepreneurs and firms continued to operate and reemerged when the incentive structure of the market changed. When U.S. and coalition forces left, the insurgents re-exerted coercive and political force. This is why we must focus on the markets of a population center, and not just the violent actors, in order to obtain our security goals.

Describing CT and COIN in market terms means understanding the dynamic nature of conflict. Our challenge of stable security means that illicit actors face the challenge of persistent insecurity. The inevitability of sustained exchange can be made into an advantage for the security professional: we can trade our way toward security. The illicit entrepreneur must deal with the uncertain loyalty of an ad hoc workforce and the ease with which a safe haven can turn into contested terrain. Osama bin Laden, for example, fled Sudan when the Sudanese government leadership was offered the easing or non-imposition of sanctions for his expulsion. Pablo Escobar fled safe haven in Panama after the United States bargained with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to win over his support.

In traditional warfare, we pit military force against military force, and when one side’s leaders no longer believe they can achieve a military victory, then the conflict ends. But this logic only considers military-on-military violence. The competition in the marketplace, and the factors that facilitated the violence, often persist. The kinetic battle space remains only an aspect of the market.

When a dominant firm exits a market, other entrepreneurs of violence predictably emerge. Coalition forces defeated the insurgency in Iraq following the “surge” because the opposition was battered and lost substantial ground. However, the market for organized violence continued throughout those years. Coalition forces killed and captured combatants and made market dominance for a group of enemy leaders unfeasible, for a while. But this did not change the underlying incentives; local entrepreneurs sought some combination of greed, power, or grievance, and waited for the U.S.-led Coalition forces to depart.

The institutions of violence moved from one organizational form to another when the economic prospects for a particular firm or business models changed. The market that enabled Osama bin Laden would facilitate ISIS’ formation under Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

We have inherited a definition of “victory” as the particular moment when the enemy surrenders. “Japan Surrenders” was the New York Times headline 75 years ago this month. “Germany Signs Treaty; World War At An End” was the headline of June 28, 1919. However, seeing organized violence through an economic lens, we can better see that violence continues when institutional change of government and society do not. The market in which humans organize for violence determines the ending or continuation of violence.

Victory versus a competitor in market terms may be grabbing some or all market share, causing the rival to go fail — go out of business. A hazier form of victory, but an alternative to surrender, is the acquisition or merger outcome: one buys its competitor. Examples of successful mergers include the FARC finding a mutually agreeable set of terms with the Colombian government, the merger between the insurgency in Nepal and the government backed army, and the peace talks in Northern Ireland between the UK and Irish governments. In contrast, the rise of the Islamic State out of the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq is an example of a merger gone wrong.

Violence and its threat has continued for at least 5,000 years. Planning on its continuing seems to make sense. What is at stake? Market power. Power cannot remain “up for grabs.” Instead of envisioning those working in law enforcement and national security as armed and uniformed automatons seeking total surrender from a unified force, we need to envision the law enforcement and national security workforces as women and men enforcing rules — our rules. Victory for a military force, for example, could be defined as seeing some set of “desired” rules adopted and enforced by indigenous firms in a functioning marketplace that makes illicit violence infeasible. Adopting a language of rules and enforcement will place battlefield successes in the context of success in a market. Understanding the enemy and redefining what victory means are essential, but victory also requires taking actions like an entrepreneur.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

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Gary M. Shiffman, Ph.D., brings passion, creativity, and scientific rigor to the mission of making the world a more difficult place for illicit actors and networks. He works primarily through the application of behavioral science to the world of organized violence. In 2012, Dr. Shiffman founded the software company, Giant Oak (​​), to bring government-funded research and development to U.S. national security, and to compliance professionals in the financial services industry. He seeks to democratize advanced analytics so that organizations, regardless of size, can benefit from best practices in countering illicit activities. Dr. Shiffman teaches at Georgetown University and his second book, ​The Economics of Organized Violence: How Behavioral Science Can Transform our View of Crime, Insurgency and Terrorism ​is forthcoming in late 2019 from Cambridge University Press. Dr. Shiffman’s past professional experiences have qualified him as an expert on the intersections of big data, business, national security, and social science. Prior to his work at Giant Oak, Dr. Shiffman served as Managing Director of the Chertoff Group, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Risk Management Solutions at L-3, and Chief of Staff at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Additionally, Dr. Shiffman has served as a Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Senate Leadership, advised international law firms on anti-terrorism and homeland defense issues, and served in policy, planning, and operational positions in the U.S. Department of Defense. Dr. Shiffman proudly served his country and is a decorated U.S. Navy Gulf War veteran. He earned his Ph.D. in Economics from George Mason University, his M.A. in Security Studies from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and his B.A. in Psychology from the University of Colorado.

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